Refugees in Domestic Service in Britain
Updated: Oct 8
By Dr Jana Buresova
Refugee domestic service in Britain became prominent during two particular political eras in Europe, Fascism and Communism.
World War Two
For women desperate to escape from Fascism, nursing or domestic service were major means of entering Britain legally from the late 1930s to the onset of World War Two in September 1939 (when paid work was otherwise normally prohibited as a condition of entry). These life-saving measures were widely sought after through agencies and charities, and posts were often obtained on the women’s behalf by family members or friends already in Britain. But whilst the women were grateful to be safe, few were content. Overall, the domestic service experience was not a happy one.
Several factors contributed to the women’s unhappiness, quite apart from homesickness and anxiety about loved ones left behind. Grievances centre on their treatment/mistreatment as ‘lowly servants’ regardless of their education, qualifications or social standing (not unusually equal to, or greater than that of the respective mistress). Unfamiliar language, customs and practices could heighten a woman’s humiliation or sense of lost identity in a class-conscious and alien society that had not endured foreign domination for centuries.
Despite the Domestic Bureau’s guidance in Mistress and Maid, tensions inevitably arose, especially when the ‘domestic’ could not cook or light an open coal fire… Nevertheless, it is broadly held that the women were generally exploited. Tony Kushner refers to the ‘opportunism and blatant self-interest’ of British refugee policy regarding domestic service work, in Second Chance (see Further Reading list below); numerous women concur, some of whom have recounted their experiences in AJR Refugee Voices interviews cited here.
The situation changed, however, during the war (briefly in 1939 when refugee women were officially allowed to change or leave their domestic service posts to work elsewhere, then in 1941 following the release of most alien women internees). This meant that women had wider employment choices and could contribute to Britain’s war effort by e.g. working in factories, producing uniforms, folding parachutes, or working with the British Red Cross Society…In some instances the work experience proved useful for future employment.
Post-war early years
Contrary to expectations, the role of women in early post-war Britain initially returned to the pre-war ‘housewife’ status, for demobbed men sought or re-claimed civilian jobs temporarily filled by women. This focus on the home increased demands for domestic servants; however, working women seized better opportunities in shops and offices, so servants were again a ‘scarce commodity’. A new cohort of refugees was to meet that need.
To some extent, a variation of the policy outlined above evolved in the late 1940s, when certain services and industries needed unskilled labour. This coincided with the early Communist era in Europe. Thousands of desperate refugees languished in refugee and Displaced Persons camps across Germany and Austria – recruiting grounds for Westward Ho and European Volunteer Workers programmes overseen by Britain’s Ministry of Labour.
‘Suitable’ men/women were brought to Britain to work in e.g. northern wool/cotton mills, but health, age limits plus other proscriptive conditions prevailed, notably regarding changing employment within a specified period e.g. two years. A Czechoslovak married couple acting as housekeeper and gardener respectively, ‘felt like slaves’.
Memories of such times differ considerably. There were undoubtedly some extremely difficult circumstances, and the economic cum humanitarian balance of the policies has been questioned; nevertheless, it is also important to acknowledge that they provided a life-line, which in many cases led to permanent settlement in Britain.
Kay, Diana, and Miles, Robert, “Refugees or Migrant Workers? The Case of the European Volunteer Workers in Britain (1946‒1951)”, in Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 1, nos. 3 and 4, 1988, pp. 214‒36.
London, Louise, Whitehall and the Jews, 1933‒1948. British Immigration Policy, Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust, Cambridge/London: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Mistress and Maid. General Information for the Use of Domestic Refugees and Their Employees, Domestic Bureau, Central Offices for Refugees, London: April 1940.
Steinert, Johannes-Dieter, “British Post-War Migration Policy and Displaced Persons in
Europe”, in The Disentanglement of Populations. Migration, Expulsion and Displacement in
Post-War Europe, 1944–9, pp. 229–247 (critique of Westward Ho and European Volunteer
Country of Origin Specific
Buresova, Jana Barbora, The Dynamics of Forced Female Migration from Czechoslovakia to Britain, 1938–1950, Oxford/Bern/Berlin/Bruxelles/New York/Wien: Peter Lang, 2019,
pp. 42–55 (see especially YWCA project to train Jewish women for domestic service),
pp. 247–249, 258 (European Voluntary Workers programme and experiences).
Kushner, Tony, “Domestic Service”, in Mosse, Werner E., ed., Second Chance. Two Centuries of German-Speaking Jews in the United Kingdom, Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991, pp. 553‒78.
Malet, Marian and Grenville, Anthony, eds., Changing Countries. The Experience and Achievement of German-Speaking Exiles From Hitler in Britain From 1933 to Today, London: Libris, 2002 (see especially brief biogs. Hilde Ainger, p. xiii, Nelly Kuttner, p. xvi; Ch.4, Everyday Life… overview and experiences pp. 90 – 94).